BERN, Switzerland — "For the outsider," wrote newspaper editor Fabien Dunand in a recent book marking the 700th anniversary of Switzerland's independence, "neutrality is as Swiss as chocolate."
Along with towering mountains, verdant valleys, expensive watches, brimming banks and milk chocolate, the tradition of neutrality has defined Switzerland for the outside world since at least 1815, when it was first formally established at the Congress of Vienna. For nearly five centuries, the quirky confederation of 26 semiautonomous cantons has managed to stay out of fights between its neighbors while enriching itself in the process.
The practice has not always been perfect. During World War II, Switzerland was one of Nazi Germany's most dependable arms suppliers. Even worse, the Swiss government blocked entry to thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich, knowing at the time that this meant sentencing them to almost certain death in Nazi concentration camps.
Nor has Swiss neutrality always been universally respected.
The English statesmen and author Sir Thomas More, among others, condemned the Swiss practice of exporting its mercenary soldiers all over the world while observing the morally high ground of peaceful neutrality at home.
"This passionate will to remain neutral," observed Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt, "makes me think of a virgin who makes her living in a bordello but wants to stay chaste."
But until recently, neutrality had always been considered one of the inviolable principles of Swiss life.
The first big crack came last August when Switzerland for the first time in its history agreed to participate in international economic sanctions by joining the U.N. boycott of Iraq. Quickly sensing parallels between tiny, rich Kuwait and tiny, rich Switzerland, the Swiss also for the first time allowed overflights by foreign military aircraft.
The Persian Gulf War opened a broader debate that many feel will eventually lead to Switzerland's abandonment of neutrality as the pillar of its foreign policy.
The end of the Cold War (and with it, Switzerland's important role as an international intermediary) and changing geopolitical climate are cited as reasons for the shift. But the biggest pressure is coming from the emerging European Economic Community and the projected unified market by 1993.
Many Swiss fear that the powerful new market threatens to isolate and marginalize Switzerland, which depends on the 12 nations of the European Community to take more than half its exports. As a result, some Swiss political leaders want to join the Community, an act that would almost certainly compromise its sacred principle of neutrality.
Although Switzerland--unlike its fellow European "neutrals" Austria and Sweden--has not formally applied for membership in the European Community, the Swiss Federal Council took an important step in that direction earlier this month when it declared membership a "priority consideration."
Meanwhile, diplomats and government constitutional experts here in the Swiss capital and abroad have begun testing the waters for the possible abandonment of neutrality as one of the tenets of Swiss life.
"Europe has entered a new phase of its postwar history in which the policies of the superpowers have changed," explained senior Swiss diplomat Mathias Krafft in a May 17 speech in London. "An internal European Community market is emerging, East-West relations further improve and disarmament has become a possibility and a necessity.
"Even a traditionally neutral country like Switzerland must continuously review its security policy and, at some point, even its neutrality," concluded Krafft, director of the division for international law in the federal department of foreign affairs.
Krafft's speech at a seminar on Swiss neutrality was studiously cautious. Swiss officials vividly recall the 1986 ballot in which Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to join the United Nations--even though the measure was supported by most leading political figures, journalists and scholars. "It is clear that the idea of abandoning neutrality is still unacceptable for many, probably the great majority of Swiss citizens," Krafft noted in his London speech.
But privately and unofficially, many Swiss officials are impatient to shed the restrictions they feel that neutrality places on their foreign policy.
"Neutrality is only a tool of Swiss foreign policy," commented Thomas G. Borer, a young lawyer and Swiss diplomat based in Bern. "It is not a goal or a higher good. Unfortunately, over the years it has become mythologized as a principle of government. Now that we are in a position where we have to open up our foreign policy, neutrality has to be pushed back."